To say I was not interested in the originally YouTube Red show, now Netflix show Cobra Kai would be an understatement. The height of internet banality, before “is a hot dog a sandwich,” was “Daniel cheated, Johnny was the real hero” narrative. There’s actually a YouTube video that has been cited ad nauseam explaining why Johnny was the hero and, well, an entire nostalgia-drenched series based on this premise wasn’t interesting to me. I liked Karate Kid alright, but it was never a movie I felt passionate about in any way.
So why would I watch Cobra Kai?
Like most kids my age, I did some strip mall karate growing up, which had its difficulties. It was mostly good and helped me to establish that I wasn’t some athletic dud and helped pave my way for a future interest in other martial arts. After a few friends whose opinions I trust kept talking about the show in a positive light, I gave it a shot. The result was not really what I was expecting. Yes, there’s a lot of ridiculous, out-of-place karate for a modern show. I feel like the idea of multiple rival karate dojos sprouting up in the modern world where MMA exists is a tough sell. Kids are drawn to BJJ and muay thai, not strip mall karate.
But it had to happen to make this universe pan out, so I get it.
There’s a ton about Cobra Kai to unpack beyond just the school-wide brawls and over-attended karate tournaments, though. Making Johnny Lawrence the protagonist while remaining frustrating and broken wasn’t a straightforward task, the same with making Daniel Larusso a reflection of him, only in the opposite direction of Johnny (Johnny went from rich to poor, Daniel went from poor to rich). Both men’s rivalry and obsession with the past plays a huge role in the show, where they internalize their trauma and pass it on to the next generation, including their own children, over reasons that everyone considers to be silly or baffling.
As frustrating as Johnny is, there’s always a reason for his behavior, which is accentuated by his relationship with both his step-father and his former sensei, John Kreese.
Spoilers ahoy, so if that bothers you, stop reading here.
The return of John Kreese in the second season helps to flesh out Johnny’s problems and gives them a new framework beyond what we already knew. We already knew that Kreese was an unstable maniac who pushed his students too hard and instilled suspect morals in them, but seeing how they interacted as adults was not what I was expecting from this show. By the time Kreese returns, we’ve seen Johnny grow as a person thanks to his student, Miguel, and others. He’s understanding how many of his problems are because of his anger and inability to turn away from his troubled past. Instead of there being pushback to every one of his beliefs, there’s a realism involved where the good parts of Johnny are absorbed by Miguel and others, while the bad are rejected.
Johnny’s love for 80s music rubs off on Miguel, who does his own research into the era and enjoys some of the same bands as his new mentor does, which helps build a bridge between the two characters and their respective eras. It allows Johnny to see there isn’t uniform rejection of his vision of the world, just his antiquated values. The Cobra Kai name, the logo, the uniforms and the martial arts themselves are, indeed, badass and cross the generational gaps seamlessly. Johnny’s insistence on insulting and demeaning other people for outward appearances, race, gender or sexual preference remains cringe-worthy and most of his students push back against it.
His change happens naturally, where he realizes how toxic these things are and how those values were instilled in him at a young age from his abusive stepfather and then his abusive sensei, John Kreese. Values he previously wasn’t able to separate himself from gain a new perspective and there’s a realization that insulting people he cares about with hurtful labels or unrealistic expectations isn’t healthy for them, it’s just going to create another generation of broken, fearful and stunted children like he was.
John Kreese was an almost comical caricature of the 80s strip mall sensei. A white man stealing Asian iconography and culture, making it more “badass” and building up an entire system to churn out super soldier kids to make up for something he was lacking in. When he returns in the series, Johnny immediately rejects him, the two fighting until exhaustion where they can finally have a conversation. Johnny realizes Kreese hasn’t changed enough to belong in his life, but still feels guilty for not letting him back in. Kreese presents himself as sympathetic to Johnny, proud of him for bringing back their shared legacy and willing to help him.
Rightfully, Johnny doesn’t believe Kreese’s story, trailing him to what he thought was the hotel he was staying in, but was instead a homeless shelter where he saw how John Kreese was “really” living (or this was an elaborate show). The once-proud masculine figure he built his entire life around had seemingly been humbled by life, and his outreach to Johnny was appearing like one of need. Kreese manipulates Johnny to get back into his life and back into training students, where it becomes painfully clear that Kreese’s talk of respect and humility were a lie, a further act of manipulation to get what he wanted. Johnny is somewhat cognizant of this, telling Kreese he knew Johnny’s weaknesses and how to take advantage of them and he’s absolutely correct.
If you’ve ever had a parent or mentor figure in your life like John Kreese, most of what you’re seeing here is shockingly, if not brutally, honest. It’s textbook, really. The lengths he’s willing to go to for his own gain are endless. As long as there’s an opening he can take, he does, and it’s effective. Johnny doesn’t want his students to have Kreese in their lives, but cannot face his own past with Kreese to protect them. He’s still under the man’s spell, no matter how hard he tries. Kreese can play at Johnny’s weaknesses, wedge himself into the business Johnny created and push him out, then finding a new generation that is entirely his to mold in his own image.
He’s given another chance at passing on his own legacy.
For Johnny, the legacy he was trying to create for himself wasn’t his after all, because it was still linked to John Kreese and the power he holds over him. While Daniel and Johnny are linked together through their shared past and that plays a pivotal role in the show, John Kreese remains the looming figure over them they cannot shake. Kreese snuck his way back into Johnny’s life by playing on his empathy and feigning he was in need, knowing Johnny would take him back. Then he gave him a false sense of control by telling him he’d do things the way Johnny saw fit. On the outside, he’s taking an interest in Johnny’s work and just trying to help while he’s himself in a rut. But, much like the nagging voice in the back of Johnny’s head was telling him, it was just a trick, a part of a lifetime of mind games Kreese has played to get what he wants.
As much as season three looks to humanize Kreese with his flashbacks, they still don’t show him as anything but a manipulator. The show isn’t sanitizing their villain, they’re giving him context. The mind games with Johnny culminate in him getting through to Robby in a way that a torn Johnny never did, and Daniel failed to continue on with. Kreese offered him acceptance and understanding, all a part of his mind games, but for someone as hurt and scared as Robby, it comes across as the only person he can trust. He knows Kreese is dangerous and that his goals are perhaps dubious, which allows him to trust Kreese from a safe distance. Unlike Daniel, who presented himself as an undying force for good, or Johnny, who continued to offer up his help and love, only to find himself divided because of his bond with Miguel, Kreese was transparent. Kreese wants to create an unstoppable team that will hurt anyone that gets in his way while strengthening himself, no matter the cost.
It’s so real.
Kreese is an abuser. He’s a manipulator. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get himself into the dominant position. If it means hurting others, so be it. If it means playing people against each other, it’s fine. He’s been hurt in his life and experienced grief, but instead of exploring those emotions and healing himself, he’s found what makes him comfortable is hurting others to make himself feel better.
For a show like Cobra Kai about rival karate dojos to tackle this subject and nail it as well as they do, it means something. It means the show’s appeal is beyond just people interested in martial arts or nostalgia. What they do with Kreese moving forward is anyone’s guess. There have been times in the show where it dragged or felt like it was being artificially padded out to create more drama, but it always ends up in a place that feels organic, showcasing the characters and how they’ve learned and grown along the way.
Is there redemption for a Kreese, or is he beyond that now? For Johnny and Daniel there’s another generation that they can still help by no longer recreating and reliving their past traumas, but learning and growing from them. For Kreese, a generation older, it feels like there’s little hope. The hope is for the younger generation in Cobra Kai, though.